A Banner Year for Democracy in Ohio

Red background with Ohio Legislature faded into the back and two blue-toned people (one on the other's shoulders) holding a sign that reads "WE WON 57 YES" in front of a pink-toned shape of Ohio.

In a banner year for democracy in Ohio, through two back-to-back elections and despite the GOP’s best efforts to thwart us, voters overwhelmingly protected the people’s power and enshrined the right to abortion into the state constitution.

I’ve always been proud to hail from this little heart-shaped state, but this year? That pride grew about 14 times. And, yes, I do mean that particular number because it reflects the 14 points by which Ohioans defended our 110-year old direct democracy rights and majority rule and also by which we codified reproductive freedoms into law.

In fact, if I could buy a bunch of billboards across the state to emblazon 57-43 (the vote margins for both the August and November election) to serve especially the Republicans who worked in overdrive to keep those wins from happening a reminder about how Ohioans feel about them, I would. It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced these types of monumental wins in Ohio and damn does it feel good.

Something that has been particularly moving to see this year was how the state’s progressive movement engaged in these fights arm in arm, in lockstep, to fight for a better future in our state.

Two massive coalitions made up of labor unions, civil and voting rights organizations, faith leaders, issue- and community-based groups, reproductive justice, rights and health leaders, grassroots organizations and more proved just how much we can accomplish when we come together to defend our power, our democracy, and our rights. They also put up an incredibly massive voter mobilization and voter education efforts in just six months that outpaced programming for all of 2022, an election cycle when we had a U.S. Senate race and all of our statewide constitutional seats on the ballot, to drive Ohioans out to vote.

And vote they did. Since Ohio doesn’t normally host statewide elections in odd years, our voter turnout during those elections is usually between 700,000 and one million voters. But in August, we blew those numbers out of the water when 3.1 million voters turned out and then again expanded them when nearly 3.9 million voters turned out in November.

What has been made abundantly clear through these elections with turnout numbers quadruple the size of those from November 2022 is that, first, (and I cannot possibly stress this enough) abortion is a winning issue and, second, voters are highly motivated to turn out to vote when they know that their freedoms and rights are on the line. More specifically to Ohio, when given the chance outside the constraints of illegally gerrymandered district lines to vote directly on issues that matter to us, the people (and our democracy) win.

Now, because we’re talking about politics in Ohio no article of mine would be complete without at least one sobering reminder about how — despite how clear our mandates were at the ballot box – Republicans in the state Legislature are still hellbent on ignoring us and exacting pain on the most marginalized communities as a seeming form of punishment for having lost big this year.

First up, we have the Republicans’ attempt to completely (or maybe just in part) gut the people’s will as it relates to legalizing recreational marijuana, which Ohioans overwhelmingly approved in November. But because the marijuana ballot measure was only an initiated statute (and not a constitutional amendment, like the abortion measure), the Legislature ultimately has the power to dictate what actually gets implemented into law. 

Republicans proposed drastic changes to the statutory text Ohioans approved — including sending tax revenue to cops instead of to local communities and to address equity issues, as was voted on last month. But we will have to wait to see just how far our gerrymandered Republicans are willing to go to subvert the will of nearly 60% of voters because they didn’t manage to compromise before leaving town for their winter break.

In case you thought they didn’t wind down a lame duck legislative session without at least one horrific and widely unpopular bill passing, I’ve got some bad news for you.

After having lost two elections by double digits where personal agency — over our medical decisions, our bodies and our political futures — was at the crux for each, Republicans closed out their legislative year ignoring that and instead, again, attacking Ohioans’ control over their own bodies. And in an ironic twist for the folks who fought against the abortion amendment by spreading misinformation about it under the banner of protecting “parents’ rights,” they passed a bill that literally undermines parents’ ability to seek medical care their children want and need.

Specifically, Republicans passed an incredibly harmful bill that not only bans trans kids from accessing necessary gender-affirming health care, but that also bans them from participating in girls’ sports at school. I want to be crystal clear that these measures do not reflect what Ohioans want, support or need. It is a bill that defies opposition from hundreds of people, including members of Ohio’s trans community — including trans kids who bravely testified before committees of legislators intent on attacking who they are as people and endangering their wellbeing. It also defies opposition testimony from trans Ohioans’ families and allies, LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, and doctors (including major children’s health and medical associations across the state). And it is a bill that will put lives at risk and force good people and families to flee Ohio for other, safer states.

Once again, Republican legislators are injecting themselves (and our government) into our private lives and medical decisions. It’s as if they didn’t hear us loudly enough when we rejected that exact type of interference wholesale at the ballot just last month. It’s as if they’re taking out their frustrations about having lost this year on democracy and bodily autonomy on some of the most marginalized members of our state: trans kids. It’s as if our work to wrestle back the reins of power in our democracy away from out-of-touch politicians and back into the hands of the people is not yet done.

Keep your eyes on Ohio. We’ve got more banner years for democracy up our sleeves.

I (and so many other politicos who are worn down after an exhausting year) would love nothing more than the time and space to relish the incredible wins we saw this year in Ohio. But Republicans have a way of making clear even when we win one right, another attack on something else is always waiting around the corner. And the only way to stop them is to turn the tables on them to kneecap their power by restoring our own.

Next year, Ohioans will have the opportunity to do just that. A real redistricting reform package — which will create a citizen redistricting commission for both congressional and state legislative maps — is well on its way to collecting the necessary 413,000 signatures required to qualify for the November 2024 ballot.

Together this ballot reform offers Ohioans yet another massive opportunity to shift the balance of power away from politicians and towards the people, where it belongs. It’s a reform that present to us yet another essential inflection point on our long, righteous fight for a people-powered democracy that works for and serves all of us.

We also have the opportunity to flip the Ohio Supreme Court — the court whose current conservative makeup recently upheld illegally rigged maps for the rest of the decade and that is still weighing the constitutionality of the state’s six-week abortion ban — for the first time since 1986. Having a state court with a majority of justices who actually respect and uphold the rule of law particularly when another branch of government is actively working against it is mission critical for any functioning democracy, Ohio’s very much included.

If this year has been any indication, it’s clear Ohioans are fed up with the status quo of a hostile state government run by Republicans hellbent on doing anything they can to maintain their outsized and illegal grips on political power – particularly when they do so by undermining the will of the people. In a state too many have written off entirely, democracy and people power won decisively. And we’re not done yet.

There is no shortage of important work left to do as we peer ahead to a new year, but we’ve got the wind of two massive wins at our backs pushing us ahead to tackle all we must accomplish in 2024. 

Keep your eyes on Ohio. We’ve got more banner years for democracy up our sleeves.

Katy Shanahan is an attorney and activist in her home state of Ohio where she continues to fight for fair maps and expansive voting laws in the Buckeye State. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Shanahan writes about the state of voting rights in Ohio as well as redistricting both in Ohio and across the country.